The Petition for Dignity: Advocating for Professors’ Rights to Safety While Teaching

Cartoon by Lianna Maley.

Last fall, just a few months into the pandemic, some brave members of the New Paltz community came back to campus armed with face masks and hand sanitizer, ready to figure out what school in the midst of a pandemic would entail — but some came by choice, others by coercion. 

Mary McLaughlin, a widely beloved American Sign Language professor, was one of the people who came to campus against her wishes. She knew if she were to be infected with COVID, her loved ones she lives with would have serious health complications that could potentially be fatal. She lives with her husband who suffers with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, her daughter who has a weakened immune system, and her 7-year-old grandson who is too young to be vaccinated. For her, risking COVID-19 infection at work is especially dangerous. 

She expressed these concerns to her dean consistently over the past three semesters, begging to switch her class to an online format for her and her family’s safety. She was denied. Now cases on campus are even higher than they were then. Still, McLaughlin is being denied. 

“I’m getting more stressed, and I can’t take it anymore!,” she says. “I don’t think the dean understands my situation…  I cannot afford to be sick!”

This week, McLaughlin shared an update that her ADA request was denied. “The dean’s office goes by what HR says and that was the office that denied the ADA request,” she says. “My boss has done what she can to advocate, but the Dean is not moving on this.”

“So, keep cross that I will be okay for the rest of this semester,” she said hopefully. 

But already, in just the first two weeks of classes, about six students in her classes have reported either a positive COVID-19 test or having been exposed to someone who tested positive, according to McLaughlin.

Unfortunately, her story embodies the stories of many. With cases on the rise, many educators and community members on campus are expressing feeling unsafe in their teaching environments. They’re saying that with specific policy changes, they would feel safer doing their jobs. 

On Aug. 17, the United University Professors (UUP), a union for instructional faculty, sent an email to President Donald P. Christian sharing concerns about the lack of safety measures and appropriate accommodations. After a response union leaders believed fell short, they sprung into action creating “The Petition for Dignity and Solidarity at SUNY New Paltz.”

The petition lists four requests of the SUNY New Paltz administration: that they let instructors with safety concerns change the format of their classes to reduce in-person instruction until the vaccine mandate is in effect; work with union leaders when they make plans for face to face instruction; to increase surveillance testing, even for vaccinated students (which has since been accepted by the school, going into effect Sept. 7, though it only requires vaccinated students to get tested about twice a semester); and, to hold harmless anyone who takes “reasonable action” to protect their health and safety.

The petition has amassed 351 signatures as of Sept. 8 from professors, community members, students and alumni alike. 

“Plans for this fall semester were done under a number of assumptions. The most important one was that the Delta variant—a highly contagious variant of the virus that can be transmitted even when vaccinated—was not yet on the map,” says César Barros Arteaga, Vice President for Academics of the SUNY New Paltz United University Professors (UUP) Chapter, Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program and an associate professor. “Nobody could foresee this, of course, but this fact alone makes multiple changes needed.”

Ulster County has been deemed “very high risk,” with 633 active cases, as of Sept. 8 (82 in the Village of New Paltz) and a 8.8% test positivity rate. As of Sept. 8, there are 57 active cases on campus

Still, administration has refused many of these requests, expressing commitment to a mainly in-person semester. An email sent to members of the campus community from the Office of the President on Aug. 19, two days after the UUP reached out with their requests, states, “Though conditions have changed since the publication of our course schedule, students and their families have already based a series of financial and educational decisions on the course modalities as published. It would be difficult to predict the negative ripple effects on students and their educational experiences for each change of modality requested.”

The letter continues to argue that the college could lose money if some classes go online because some students may withdraw from classes and opt to go to a school that’s fully in-person. They also write, “our most vulnerable students, who lack resources, safety or support at home, need to be here and in person as much as possible.”

A study done by the UUP found that if professors were allowed to change the format of their courses, 60-70% say they would still teach in-person, according to a survey they did. This relatively minimal shift would lead to increased safety for all and professors like McLaughlin wouldn’t need to decide between risking family members’ health and giving up her job. 

Instead of allowing educators to teach online if it’s necessary to them, the school made an announcement on Blackboard encouraging students to report their professors if they change the modality of their classes for health reasons. 

We, at the SUNY New Paltz Oracle, believe it is the administration’s responsibility to immediately follow through with all that the faculty has asked of them. The four requests are exceedingly reasonable and each and every employee, student and community member should be entitled to working and learning conditions that are safe and comfortable. In the meantime, students must stand in solidarity with their professors and the immunocompromised community members who are more severely impacted by these changes. 

The current working and learning conditions on campus aren’t necessarily conducive to safety and comfort. One professor who signed the petition anonymously describes being assigned a classroom in humanities with “poor ventilation, substandard filtration and windows that don’t open.” The teacher’s class also has 35 students, just two people short of the fire code’s listed capacity of 37. She’s a new mother and consistently fears being a carrier of the virus to her child who is too young to be vaccinated.

Many signers anonymously listed why they stand in solidarity with the UUP’s calls to action. One signer posed the controversy as a question of consent, writing: “I’m signing because the professors who changed my life deserve to be protected, and because students I don’t know deserve to be protected. In the WGSS program, CONSENT is at the center of all decisions, and I know that my former professors have not consented to be exposed to unsafe conditions.”

The school states that those who live with immunocompromised people can make a request to their dean to switch to online classes. McLaughlin’s story illustrates that these requests are just that: requests. Teachers in similar situations should be guaranteed the ability to teach online and the option to make reasonable decisions for their health and safety, not just the option to plead their case. 

In the CDC’s guidance for reopening colleges, they explain that schools should only reopen at full capacity without social distancing if all community members are fully vaccinated before getting to campus. In the school’s case, all community members were not fully vaccinated before arriving on campus and still aren’t, given that the vaccine mandate has not yet fully come into effect. 

The SUNY New Paltz administration is being given a straightforward, no-nonsense way to stand with their educators and the immunocompromised people who are directly or indirectly impacted by the school’s actions, such as Prof. McLaughlin’s family. We’ve seen the College step up and stand with the needs of the community before. Following through with these policy requests is the obvious next step to continuing that trajectory and embodying a “We, Not Me” mentality.

Our community flourishes when our leaders are safe.

“If one of my coworkers feels unsafe working under certain conditions, I can’t just stay silent and worry about my business, because my work is not my business, it is a collective endeavor,” Barros says. “We are a public university. The university belongs to all of us, and everybody should do their best to make it a safe space for everyone.”